JUPITER, Fla. -- After manager Mike Shildt announced at the end of his pregame press availability that the starter for Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener, Jack Flaherty, would also be the Cardinals’ Opening Day starter, he was asked why.
“Really?” Shildt said with a smile, walking away.
It’s true -- Flaherty being named the starter when the Cardinals begin the season in Cincinnati on March 26 comes as a surprise to almost no one. The ace of the staff is usually given that responsibility, and Flaherty’s historic second half last year -- when he had a 0.91 ERA across 15 starts after the All-Star break -- turned the 24-year-old into the Cardinals’ ace.
Still, the assignment is an honor for Flaherty. He said he doesn’t put an emphasis on milestones, but he does look at starting Opening Day as another first.
“With myself, I kind of expect everything,” Flaherty said. “It was something I wanted, to be able to have the chance to take the ball first. For them to say that, it means a lot.”
Flaherty is not one to shy away from a challenge. He started the Cardinals’ home opener last year and threw five scoreless innings against the Padres. He threw an efficient two-hit, seven-inning outing against the Cubs on the final day of the regular season to clinch the National League Central title. And he started three games in the postseason last year -- two in the National League Division Series and one in the NL Championship Series.
When Shildt and his staff told Flaherty the news on Friday, Flaherty was excited, but he didn’t dwell on it too much.
“It’s a nice accomplishment, and a well-earned one,” Shildt said. “He was excited, but he took it in stride. Now let’s go.
“We love our home openers, and it was quite an honor as well. And he’s got playoff experience, so this is nothing new to Jack. But still, nice, well-earned accolade.”
Flaherty pitched two scoreless innings against the Mets in Saturday's 2-0 win, the first of around six or so spring outings he'll make before the season kicks off. He threw 32 pitches, 20 for strikes, and said he felt strong and comfortable facing an opposing team for the first time since October.
This season is about consistency for Flaherty. The Cardinals knew he was going to be a key player for them when they selected him in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft, then watched him develop in the Minors and before breaking into the Majors in 2017 and ‘18.
Last season was the year it all came together.
“Jack’s always been a little beyond his years in a lot of areas -- maturity, physicality, preparation,” Shildt said “It’s really just about him being continually aware of how you continue to improve and how he can put the total package -- which is obviously, clearly special -- together. And that’s what you’re seeing.”
And although it’s probably not realistic to expect him to replicate the second half of last season entirely, Flaherty’s focus is on building on what he and the Cardinals accomplished in 2019 -- starting on the first day of the regular season.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Just happy I get the ball first. Get the first chance to go out and set the ball for the season. Just get the first chance to go out and compete. It’s one of those things you work for and want, but it’s just the first chance to go out and compete.”